Monday, September 8, 2014

Bye-bye Vuelta, HELLO John Muir Trail!

Well, two topics today.
As for the Vuelta, just can’t get any better than these summit-finishes! Yesterday’s stage (Sunday) had Contador, Valverde and JRod literally side by side at one point on the upper reaches of the climb slugging it out like 3 heavyweight fighters standing toe to toe (to toe)…un-freaking BELIEVABLE! I love it that these guys all seem to be unafraid to throw it all out there on the road and risk it all!
Contador was the MOST aggressive of the 3…he attacked MULTIPLE times…each with a grimace on his face as he tried to gap the rest of the GC field on the steep upper pitches. But Valverde was right there EACH AND EVERY time…AS WAS Purito! Froomey was off the back AGAIN, yet still maintaining contact somehow (well, if you can call being alone off the back of the group but somewhat in sight of them as contact)…yet he held his steady pace as he has done most of this race, and fought his way back up to the ultra-diminished GC group yet AGAIN. But in the final reaches of the climb as the attacks were fast and furious he was unable to close the gap, and lost some more time to the leaders. It was Valverde and Purito who were the big winners (and by big I mean a few seconds closer to Alberto)…they BOTH finally gapped Alberto (again) for 5 seconds at the line, AND they both got a time bonus for finishing 2nd and 3rd on the stage!
OH MY GOSH, it was just amazing! And it’s not like Contador is sitting on his overall gap playing it safe…HE is the primary animator AND he's the guy voted most likely to win at this point! Valverde actually didn’t attack at all yesterday (which was his plan), which probably was a VERY good plan, knowing Alberto WOULD be. And Purito…wow....all bets are off on that guy…he attacked a few times also, and he still had teammates when Alberto and Valverde were alone! I loved watching Purito send a guy OR TWO to attack the lead group, then even with EVERYBODY KNOWING it was coming, to attack and try to get up to his guys anyway! Each time his guys attacked it was OBVIOUS, but that didn't stop them from trying OVER AND OVER! WHAT A STAGE (AGAIN!). And today is ANOTHER SUMMIT FINISH!!! Pinch me, I'm DREAMING!!!
I don't even know who to root for in this years Vuelta anymore...I'm jazzed by all THREE primary contenders! (and I wasn't a Valverde fan at ALL before this race...but I'm seeing him in a new light right now).

Yet sadly, my 2014 Vuelta viewing days end tonight, as my brother Greg and I take off on our annual backpacking trip early tomorrow (Tues) morning. We are headed back up into the Sierra’s for the next segment of the John Muir Trail. Last year we hiked the southernmost segment…from Onion Valley to Whitney Portal. This year we will go in up out of Bishop/South Lake trailhead, and come OUT at the Onion Valley trailhead. This figures to be a 63 mile 5-day hike (the 6th day is positioning cars, which is tomorrow). Once again I have my SPOT unit (Satellite Position Tracker) with me and it will be sending out our location in 10 minute updates real-time as we hike. Here is the link to my Google-maps SPOT Tracker for the duration of the trip:

As I mentioned, we will spend most of Tuesday commuting as we need to drop a car off at the Onion Valley Trailhead, then drive down and around and up to the South Lake trailhead to begin the hike. I don’t expect to get many trail-miles tomorrow…IF we get up there and can even get 3 relatively easy miles on the trail before sunset that will be a huge success. After that it’s BIG days all the way to Saturday, where we HOPE to get to Rae Lakes early enough to fish and rest for a day. The final day (Sunday) we need to hike out over both Glen and Kearsarge Passes (and then going back down, then north again to pick up the drop-car at the South Lake trailhead, and THEN driving home). For me that's about  a 7 hour journey from South Lake, and about an hour and a half closer for Greg. Sunday will be a LONG day for sure. And then I come back to work on Monday (ugh!)

Have a great week, we'll talk more when I'm back, plus I'll work on my annual photo-trip-report.

Cheers, and VIVA la VUELTA!!!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

La Vuelta Stages 7 to whatever

Stage 7 turned out to be a pretty exciting stage, with a fair share of heartache and disappointment. There was Fabulous Fabian who was at the very front of the peleton pulling when he front-flatted. THAT was bad luck for sure...he ended up riding and waiting forever for his team car to FINALLY get to the time they changed his tire he was 3 minutes back. He worked like a maniac but never caught the main group sadly. I did not know that once a rider holds his hand up indicating a mechanical, his team car (wherever back in the group it is) needs to get permission from the race commissar (sp?) to move up to their rider for support. Fabian kept riding as he was dropping back...and finally he was WAY off the back when he got his tire.
And then there was the 4 man break with Garmin's Ryder Hesjedal in it and looking VERY good for a stage was hot, and none of the men in the break were poised to damage the GC aspirations of the hopefuls....and none of the teams seemed to have much interest in shutting it down. THEN...with just under 50k to go Hesjedal CRASHED out of the middle of the remaining 3 in a very routine looking left turn...(they front dropped the 4th off the front at that point) and the other 2 had no real idea what happened or why other than he went down..they briefly sat up waiting to see if he'd rejoin...however POOR Ryder...I could see it in the original video. As he slid his bike was spinning om a ccw circle...and just as he was grabbing it to leap back on and rejoin the break the rear wheel spun in front of the camera moto...and they RAN OVER IT. Being a rather pricey and delicate deep-section aero carbon wheel, I have no doubt it was could see the bike jump as the moto drove over it. I can't BELIEVE they weren't able to stop, or go a bit further away to the left of the crash...they had obviously slowed almost to a stop's like the driver didn't' even notice.I bet Ryder was FURIOUS..he was THAT CLOSE to getting right back in the break.

What that did was to knock Ryder COMPLETELY OUT of the break and any chance of the stage win...of which he had GREAT odds...being as he was obviously the strongest man in the break. Demarchi and the other man waited briefly for Ryder, then he sped away from the other rider in a solo attack. Neither of them had any idea how far back Ryder was...and it turns out that was a great decision to go, as he was a LONG ways back. Ryder eventually got a new bike, and was able to stay in front of the peleton and regained contact with the other 2 from the 4 man breakaway...and even finish 2nd on the stage. And then TODAY I learned that he was fined and relegated for motor-pacing after he got back in the race! We never saw hide nor hair of video of him after the crash, so have no idea how egregious his drafting was...but about insult to injury...poor Garmin can't catch a break thus far into the race. And Demarchi held on to win his first Grand Tour stage ever...good for him...he surely worked for it and earned it...but had Ryder been able to rejoin I think it might have been different....but that's water under the bridge...the history books show Demarchi won and that's it. Bad luck is all it was...for the crash and then the ruining of his bike by the moto.

Stage 8 was a flat stage, and had ho-hum written all over it...however it seemed to be a rather famous are for crosswinds....and the teams were all waiting for it knowing it was coming. And right on cue, right at about 30k to go BAM! The road turned, the trees melted away.....and the teams were all over it. For a brief bit both Fabian and Boonen were on the front driving HARD! Valverde, Froome, Quintana. Contador  and Rodrigiuez were all up in the very front....and the splits started forming right quick. It reminded me of that Tour stage LONG ago (back when we thought Vino was a hero taking back time, riding injured with bandages flapping in the wind). Today's stage had some priceless aerial views showing the damage a good crosswind can wreak.

And then the front group under a very hard pace from several teams working at the front split yet again...and this time both Quintana and Degenkolb (Giant Shimano's prized sprinter with hopes to win today) missed out in the chaos. Very quickly there was about a 15 second gap between the front group and the sub-group. Quintana looked rather calm about the affair (considering Valverde was IN that front group)...but he smartly latched onto Degenkolb's wheel and hung in there tight. And lo and behold, after a HUGE amount of work by Giant Shimano and a few other teams the 2nd group caught back on with just around 5 or 6k to go. The last few k had lots of turns and narrow roads...and the front end yo-yo'd from single file to a bunch more than a few times....until the final turn with about 800m left to go. Boonen was up there, Degenkolb, Bouhanni (trying for his 2nd win), Matthews,...and surprisingly, so was Cannondale's Sagan for the FIRST time this race! The sprint finish was looking GREAT! There was almost no leadouts...a few sprinters had maybe ONE guy due to the madness of the crosswinds...but all the teammates seemed spent and the sprinters were pretty much on their own.

The ensuing sprint started almost as soon as that last turn...Boonen went out quite early but faded...Sagan was working but didn't seem to have the legs. Bouhanni was the favorite of the lead group and didn't disappoint. HOWEVER. IMHO, I think he should be relegated. As they neared the line Matthews was up in his slipstream, and had pulled left to go around him, still accelerating. Bouhanni had his head down watching between his legs, and as Matthews was making his move he veered HARD left into his line, effectively shutting down the attempt. He won the stage and the adulations...however just a few stages ago HE filed a complaint against another sprinter for a far LESS obvious offense. I thought his move today was totally on purpose, and might very have stopped Matthews from winning as he had timed it near perfectly. We shall see overnight what the officials do....I thought it stunk to high heaven...but some say it's "just sprinting". Maybe...but he CLEARLY deviated from his line intentionally at the opportune moment to stop from being passed. Either way it was a rather exciting stage from what looked on paper to be a text-book LONG (the longest in this years race) boring day. The heat wasn't as much a factor for a it held around 90F for the day.

And then we had Stage 9 today (Sunday). A real summit finish on the 3rd rated climb of the day.It was a much better test of the GC men than stage 6...and I think MUCH more telling. Early on there was a THIRTY ONE man breakaway...that is quite rare to have one so large escape. They were over 8 minutes up at one time with Anacona in the virtual lead...and only Movistar had their guys working to contain it (yes, I know it falls to the GC leaders team to contain the days break...but SOMETIMES others will have to help, especially if/when it might affect THEIR GC hopes down the line). When it was apparent that Movistar's guys weren't bringing them back, finally Sky came to the front and started doing the work. They did bring it down substantially...but the announcers (especially Gogo) were wondering about the tactics...he thought all the other GC guys best play was to let Movistar destroy their guys so Valverde and Quintana would quickly be isolated in the big climbs to come. But I couldn't help but wonder why Froome had his guys go forward. I was wondering if MAYBE he wasn't having such a great day and was worried a bit about the break getting out of control....there were a LOT of guys in it. Also of note: it was raining on the peleton in the final third of the stage, and about 40 degrees cooler than the prior 8 days riding.

All of the "heads of state" were in the front of the peleton, about the most dangerous man in the break (IMO) was Ryder Hesjadal...I'd think you do NOT want to let him get back a big chunk of the time he's lost thus far in the race. I don't think they were TOO worried about Anacona...however he's an up and coming star...and it might be very unwise to let him have the lead and give him some huge dose of confidence....he'd be a real unknown and might end up being very dangerous. With about 20k to go the 30 man break started to fracture. Anacona broke free with 2 other from Movistar....but it appeared he was helping the break, which seemed rather odd considering his team had been working to contain the break with their guys sitting 1 and 2 in the overall lead.

The final climb wasn't especially steep nor long at only 8k...but it was enough. The front of the peleton started to grow thin, as they chased Anacona (who had broken free from the other 2 and was going for the win. It looked by all accounts that not only would Anacona win the day, but that he'd take the overall lead for his troubles. But Sky kept chipping away at his lead, and considering he was just a bit less than 3 minutes off the lead they did a great job (for Movistar I mean). With about 2k to go it was Contador of all people who lit it up from the diminished GC group....and it was only Quintana and Rodriguez (with one teammate)( who could follow. But Contador had a nice little gap and was pushing it, trying to gain time on his rivals. Froome and Valverde stayed back unable to follow. It appeared Alberto had timed his attack to perfection...his gap looked unsurmountable to Rodriguez and Quintana, who was sitting on the back of Rodriguez and his teammate while they tried to close he gap.

Anacona crossed the line for his first Grand Tour stage win...and then the clock was ticking. Alberto was killing it trying to maintain his gap, but the Katusha riders had different ideas about how the stage would play out....and with a heroic push just before the line Rodriguez (who had now lost his teammate and was pushing on his own) closed the gap to Alberto...with Quintana sitting pretty right there on his wheel. The three crossed the line with no gaps...Valverde had lost his red, and the real winner today was Quintana who was now the overall leader. But it was Contador who looked great...his attack was perfect, and if not for Katusha I don't think Quintana would have made it....but we'll never know. MAYBE he (Quintana) is biding his time, waiting for the proper moment to strike. No matter was a great stage and it was wonderful to see Alberto looking back in top form.

As to the GC shootout that's pending...I think we have a real pressure-cooker awaiting us! Valverde did look great the other day (Stage 6 I think) on the first summit finish...he was pacing Quintana (much to my surprise) and near the end he went for it, leaving Quintana behind. I can't tell if he (Quintana) let him go on purpose, or if he indeed didn't have it in the legs to stay with the front. Froome looked vulnerable today for the first time, and maybe that was why he had his team help contain the break. Maybe he just had a bad day...the rain and cooler temps might have played a role in that.....but I don't count him out by any means. Contador looked quite good and seems ready for a fight. And Rodriguez....I wouldn't count him out either. He showed he still has the legs and the spunk....and also still has GC aspirations. For now at least I think the amazing race we were hoping for is still in the cards. Tomorrow is the first rest day, and after that on Tuesday Stage 10 is an ITT.... and should really let us get a glimpse of who's who this year. We'll see just how good Froome is or is not feeling....he could very well end up in Red if he has the kind of day that everybody knows he's capable of. Quintana isn't known as a top TT'er, so we'll just see how he does giong in as the last rider of the day. I'm sad that Talansky isn't looking to be in the mix...I really thought he might be a player in the Tour...after crashing out like other GC contenders he's made it here, and I thought he was looking to be a contender...but it appears I was wrong. He's nowhere to be seen in the front during the first week, and has lostway too much time to have any shot at this point. Same for Hesjedal....his GC hopes have surely been dashed to the rocks. But we still have plenty of racing left in this years Vuelta...that's for SURE!

Have a GREAT Labor Day weekend everybody!